The recent discussions about “why we can’t talk about rpgs” have touched on some of the history of role-playing. One watershed moment that changed, fundamentally, how role-playing games are discussed (both within games and in the general public) cannot be overstated.
Just as Dr. Frederick Wertham, with the blessing of academia and a concerned public, used deception and fabrication to ban expression in comic books and inspire the adoption of the “Comics Code”, so too did an apparently Satan-crazed media bring all its power to paint Dungeons & Dragons as a suicidal gateway to the occult.
Dungeons & Dragons is “a fantasy roleplaying game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.”
– Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D.), a one-woman “national organization” in the 1980s.
Although much of the hysteria picked up by the national media was driven by two “thought leaders” who would later be discredited, the Satanic Panic was taken very seriously. A drugged, drunken teenage boy murdered a girl in the basement of a house. His defense was that D&D made him do it. The court rejected his claims as irrelevant to motive and convicted him on the conventional charge. But it didn’t matter. From prison, he appealed to worried parents and curious kids to avoid his mistakes: avoid D&D.
Changes since the panic:
So, no fraudulent “Comics Code” was ever imposed on RPGs, and TSR admittedly benefited from the satanic panic: it drove an unprecedented sales boom in the game, creating a cultural icon. In fact, just like the Comics Code, the game industry worked with a misguided public perception to alter a product and its adoption into the culture.
And that changed discussions in both obvious and subtle ways. This, in no small part is why the series of Dungeons & Dragons movies bear no resemblance to the original fantasies crafted around a table in the 1970s and early 80s. It is why Christians and other devout players quietly slipped out of “the scene” for decades, or in many cases permanently – not because the game ever “made them” forswear God or the Ten or Two Commandments, but because they concerned themselves with giving their community the “hint” of wrongdoing.
Strangely, the “Players Enter an RPG” novel-series that cuts to the dangers exposed through Role-Playing was entirely ignored during the Satanic Panic. In November of 1983, Joel Rosenberg, a non-gamer, published The Sleeping Dragon, the kick-off novel for the very popular Guardians of the Flame series. In it, the main characters are players transported into the fantasy world to suffer real death, slavery, rape and all sorts of other realities. The “fun and games” quickly become neither. But the problem is that Rosenberg did his homework, and portrayed the fantasy as a realistic semblance of the sorts of wilderness and keep and kingdom-building scenarios players played in those days. The “satanic” rapists, criminals, occultists and overlords were symbols of evil to be opposed through honor, teamwork, dedication, sacrifice, mercy and justice (as well as the right to bear firearms, but I’m being redundant.)
The answer to the Satanic Panic was very simple: D&D was the direct child of Chainmail! – a hybrid wargame that itself was inspired by Gygax’s attempt to move his passion for Napoleonic wargames to recreate the fantasy battles from books like The Return of the King. No one was about to mistake a recreation of Waterloo as problematic because it might influence players to become a Tory after playing Wellington. However, in Tracy Hickman’s public moral defense of D&D, he nevertheless critiqued what he saw as the exploitable design flaw: while moral neutrality was critical to the wargame (otherwise no Englishman would ever want to play the “morally” disadvantaged Napoleon, nor any red-blooded American play the Nazi war machine, complete with death camp tallies, for example) Hickman didn’t believe that designing an RPG to be “neutral” in moral principles was effective design. It would become a bit like playing monopoly where every player determined his own rate of inflation. “Oh no! My white dollar is worth your orange $500!” is a fast way to end a game. Now, this isn’t really a problem if your game group shares moral principles, but the “neutrality” becomes a bad variable in groups with unlike morality and most definitely to an outside world that is allowed to cast its own perceptions of bad morality into the game and pull them out intact. “See! These kids can rape their friends without consequence!” Nothing in the rules says otherwise!
Ultimately, the panic changed the way we talk about RPGs. First of all, kids “ages 12 and up” aren’t a part of the public conversation anymore. The RPG was a teen-driven phenomenon before and during the satanic panic. The demographics have shifted north of 30.
Christians abandoned – or continued silently – in a game environment that had until the panic had heavy influence and understanding of Christian and Western heritage. The Satanic Panic decoupled the RPG from the core of Medieval Fantasy – Man and the Church.
The Village of Hommlet, in particular, is an overtly Catholic setting. I can’t recall the last mainstream RPG setting that treated Religion as a serious (and entertaining!) source of dramatic conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard are successful independent games, but the truth is that in the Village of Hommlet, a parties PCs could have played an entire session debating the moral implications of following St. Cuthbert, and whether or not such a follower was compelled to physically struggle against an elemental evil, or to resist it through prayer alone. Such a medieval theological challenge simply has no place in the modern satan-shy mass-market.